One of the many insanities of the last fifteen years has been the deeply flawed assumption that school district leaders did not have to be educators. After two lawyers and a community activist Mayor de Blasio chose a chancellor who not only is a career educator but moved up the ranks in New York City from teacher to principal to deputy chancellor to the leader of the 1.1 million student school system.
I have listened to Chancellor Farina speak numerous times and her heartfelt praise of teachers is gratifying; however, her “advice-giving,” which reflects her experience, does not reflect research, and, is disturbing.
Teacher retention is a major issue – in what other profession does half the workforce leave within five years – especially in the poorest schools with the most challenging student populations?
Susan Moore Johnson leads the Next Generation of Teachers Project at Harvard and the project has produced a number of papers to guide policy at school and district levels. Chancellor Farina was probably a superior teacher and school leader; however, it is far better to give advice that is the result of thoughtful research than personal reminiscences.
The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers: (http://isites.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=hgse_pngt)
Who Stays in Teaching and Why: A Review of the Literature on Teacher Retention: (http://assets.aarp.org/www.aarp.org_/articles/NRTA/Harvard_report.pdf)
The chancellor met with a group of new teachers and Chalkbeat reports her recommendations:
* New teachers should avoid the teacher’s lunchroom during the first few weeks. It’s where “the whiners” go to gripe, she said.
All schools have cultures, some schools are filled with unhappy people, usually due to a school leadership that has alienated the staff; other schools have inclusive cultures fostered by the school leadership. Senior teachers commonly see “newbies” as filled with enthusiasm, “clickish” and distrusting of senior teachers. (“They treat us like we’re their children” versus “All they do is hang out together “). New teachers should “hang out” with other teachers on their grade or department, ask questions, listen, and definitely not avoid the lunchroom. The “whiners” may also be excellent teachers. The worst thing new teachers can do is to segregate themselves – isolation leads to frustration and alienation and is a primary reason for quitting.
* Collaborate with your peers through one-on-one lunches or by swapping classrooms once a week. An educator skilled in teaching literacy could switch classrooms with another who excels in teaching math, for example.
Building collaborative teams is a key to school improvement and job satisfaction. One-on-one lunches can become gripe sessions – one-on-one lunches with whom? Other new teachers? Hopefully the school leader has some sort of mentoring system in a school – don’t bet on it. Switching classrooms is an advanced skill – way down the road – many schools provide collaborative planning time for grades or departments: newer teachers may have better computer skills and can assist colleagues in setting up a grade/department “dropbox,” to share lesson plans. Sitting in on a lesson taught by a teacher on your grade/department is refreshing and team building. Exchanging graded papers, creating grade/department rubrics, all activities that bring you closer to colleagues and make the teaching experience less isolating and less frustrating.
* Celebrate students’ birthdays with something more productive than a cupcake or balloons. When she was a teacher, Farina said she wouldn’t give students homework on his or her birthday. If the child had few friends, she’d let him or her pick two friends who would also have no homework, to help “bring them into the fold.”
Why would you ever want to convey the impression that homework is punitive? Why would you ever want to offer not doing homework as a “reward”? If homework is boring the assignment is a poor assignment. Homework should be a check on the previous day’s work and motivation and preparation for the next day’s work. Teachers can differentiate assignments to match the needs, interests and abilities of the students. Hopefully the chancellor’s audience did not include secondary school teachers – on too many occasions I’ve listened to the chancellor – in her previous role – give “advice” to secondary school teachers far more appropriate for elementary school teachers.
* Don’t ask teachers in the grade below you for names of the “bad” kids. Instead, ask for the parents who they had trouble reaching.
“Bad” kids? Don’t you want to know as much about the kids in your class as possible, all kids? Living in a shelter, a group home, parent is in prison, living with a grandparent, suspicions of abuse, you want to be able to tailor your instruction to the socio-emotional needs of the child. S/he may be “bad” because they’re angry or frightened – how can you assuage the anger or fear? “Trouble reaching parents,” of course, in many of our schools parents are undocumented and fear any school interaction, or, unfortunately disengaged, and view school as a place to “house” kids during the day. The more know about your students, all of your students, the more you can figure out how to engage them.
* Send home “wow letters” in the first week to kids who are more of a challenge. You’ll give the student something to celebrate, and it also helps to “have those parents in your pocket when you have to tell the harder truths.”
Why would we want to give parents false impressions? – “Wow” them so we tell them the “harder truths”? In our poorest schools parents are disengaged, simply putting food on the table is an enormous challenge. The chancellor was the principal of PS 6, one of the highest achieving schools on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and the community superintendent in Brownstone Brooklyn, again, an area in which many of the parents were fully engaged. Communicating with parents is a complex task – Can the parents read English? How can you bring parents into the classroom/school? Perhaps, a musical presentation, a gallery walk, a potluck luncheon, filling out a high school application, or, FAFSA college aid form, and, sports team activities.
Nannies don’t bring kids to school in Brownsville or South Jamaica or Morrisiana.
Once again, why not check the research on parent engagement?
The Harvard Family Research Project, Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family–School Partnerships by Anne Henderson, Karen Mapp, Vivian Johnson, and Don Davies (http://isites.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=hgse_pngt)
I respect the chancellor – she has provided a calm; a voice for teachers and for the profession – she has not flooded us with “new” ideas – we have had enough of “disruptive” theories of school change, we shouldn’t have to be constantly looking over our shoulder. Principals are the school leaders and the best ideas come from those closest to the kids.
Off the cuff comments about a teaching career that ended decades ago and does not reflect the reality of today’s classroom is not helpful. Maybe someone should whisper into the chancellor’s ear – introducing a second or third year teacher to explain to her/his peers how they survived and prospered may be far more effective.